After nearly two weeks of flame and smoke, two large bosque fires in Valencia County are at 100 percent contained.
The Big Hole Fire started on Monday, April 11, and when all was said and done, scorched more than 800 acres, mostly in the bosque both east and west of the Rio Grande.
The fire began on the west side of the river, north of the Belen river bridge on River Road, and quickly jumped to the east side, pushed northeast by strong winds.
Shortly before 11 p.m., Tuesday, April 19, information on the Valencia County Fire Department’s Facebook page indicated the Big Hole Fire was at 87 percent contained, giving the community as well as local, state and federal fire crews a sense of relief.
By noon the next day, plumes of heavy white smoke emerged from the bosque in the southern part of Jarales, again west of the river.
One of the first firefighters on the scene near Jarales Road and St. Thomas Road, VCFD wildland captain Rob Barr said he quickly began assessing wind speeds and conditions.
“There was a lot of smoke and wind,” Barr said. “I just started organizing and communicating using our command system, and delegating tactical decisions.”
VCFD Chief Matt Propp said because there were still state and federal fire personnel and resources on the Big Hole Fire, they were called in as initial attack resources as well as county fire units for the Simona Fire in Jarales.
“It was fantastic to be able to have those units in the area able to respond quickly,” said Propp. “We had structure protection on one house initially, but the fire moved past it pretty quickly.”
With winds pushing the flames north through the trees, Propp said the pilot of KOAT’s news helicopter was able to provide “eyes in the sky” and advised fire crews on the progress of the blaze, letting them know when it jumped to the east side of the river.
Crews split into separate units to attack the fire from both sides of the Rio Grande, the chief said, as well as provide protection to critical infrastructure — two natural gas pipelines that spanned the river to the north of the fire.
“Once we got resources in, things started working smoothly. We had two helicopters (dropping water) the first day and one the second day. We wanted to do as much work as possible while we had those resources,” Propp said. “Our main fear was that big wind event that was forecast (on Friday, April 22) and resources pulling out to the other fires in the state. Our plan was to be really aggressive the first two days, and ultimately that appears to have worked.”
The Simona Fire was held to 165 acres, the chief said. Both fires are at 100 percent containment and the causes of them are still under investigation.
“Being 100 percent contained for us means not seeing heat towards the edges of the fire, not seeing any escape from fire lines,” Propp said. “There may be hot spots on inner parts of the fire but we don’t anticipate any additional spread. Crews are on patrol looking for wisps of smoke.”
While crews are monitoring the burns, Barr said there just aren’t enough people to patrol the entire area all the time.
“We are going to count on the public to call if they see smoke in the fire areas. Now that it’s at 100 percent, the next step is calling it ‘controlled,’” Barr said. “To call it controlled, we have to be 99.99999 percent sure it’s not going to escape. We’re going to wait a while before calling it controlled.”
When a bosque fire starts, the types of fuel burning sets the stage for how it will be fought, Propp said.
“If it’s still on the ground, you can typically get crews in quick to cut fire breaks and get a handle on things,” he said. “It gets dangerous when it gets into the tree tops. We can’t control it from the ground; there’s falling trees and branches, even fire itself. Once it gets into the tree tops, we rely on air resources like the helicopters.”
That’s also the point when bulldozers are used to cut hefty fire lines.
“A lot of (the Simona Fire) was on the ground. You get light smoke on the ground, with the weeds and grass,” he said. “When it gets into the trees and the tops, you get heavy white and dark brown smoke. The salt cedars are a mid timber and can produce dark black smoke. They will also explode and fracture in the fire. That’s kind of unnerving to hear.”
No one likes to see the bosque on fire, but every large incident expands the experience of local departments and improves their response, Barr said.
“Since the 2007 Belen Fire, we have come a long way with training, equipment, personal protective equipment and communications,” the captain said. “Now the problem is, we used to have more people. In 2000 during the Rio Grande Complex Fire, which was on both sides of the river from Belen to Los Lunas, we had all the people we needed here. During the Belen Fire, we went home that night. We had a whole Type 3 organization and the resources. We went along with our regular business and they did the extended attack.”
In the last 12 years, local departments have improved but their numbers have fallen, Barr said.
“For these recent fires, we’ve had to have people come back for extended attacks. They have the training, the equipment, the PPE, but we haven’t had enough people to turn it over,” he said. “It’s been a process of improvement over the last 12 years.”
Just hours after the Simona Fire swept north up the river, charred trees swayed in the quickening winds on the far side of a Jarales irrigation ditch. Sharp snaps and cracks echoed across the landscape, followed by the distinct sound of limbs and trees crashing to the ground.
“That’s why people need to stay out of the bosque, now and after the fire,” Propp said, gesturing to the burnt area.
While the flames are mostly out, hot spots and other dangers are still spread across the hundreds of destroyed acres.
“The biggest thing is we still have snags that can fall from trees and that can happen for weeks,” the chef said. “We don’t want to take a chance of having something fall in there and cause an injury. We will ID things, what we can see that is obvious, and bring in sawyers to mitigate branches or whole trees.”
Danger can also come from below, with stump holes where trees have burned all the way down under the ground, Barr said.
“The biggest thing is the wind and fire-weakened trees. That is a huge risk for the community and a big risk for firefighters,” he said. “When those winds hit 40 mph, I pulled everyone back. When we knew the winds were coming, we changed to defensive and held the lines.”
While the active fires are becoming less of a threat, both Propp and Barr are asking the public to be extra vigilant in not starting another incident.
“We ask people to be responsible and aware. Please be very cognizant that we are still very early into the fire season and it’s only anticipated to get worse,” Propp said. “If you see smoke in the bosque, call 911 so we can get resources in there.”
Last weekend, the fire department fielded multiple calls from county residents wanting to know if they could burn their weeds since the winds had died down, Barr said. The answer to that question is a very firm no.
As of Monday, April 18, there has been a complete ban on any open burning in the unincorporated areas of Valencia County and the five municipalities.
“People want to clean up now that it’s not that windy but it’s not the time,” Barr said. “There’s no open burning. All the (fire) chiefs have agreed on that.”
The Valencia County Fire Department is hosting a Wildfire Community Preparedness Day at three of its stations from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., Saturday, May 7. The stations are: Tomé Valley, 2755 N.M. 47, Tomé, Valencia del Norte Station 3, 160 N. El Cerro Loop, El Cerro and Los Chavez Station 7, 2 Bombero Cr., Los Chavez.
The preparedness day will focus on what residents can do on and around their homes to help protect against the threat of wildfires, as well as how to prepare for an evacuation. The first 50 households in attendance will receive a free, reflective house number sign, and be eligible for a free home and property assessment. Anyone interested in being a volunteer firefighter can sign up during the day.
Julia M. Dendinger began working at the VCNB in 2006. She covers Valencia County government, Belen Consolidated Schools and the village of Bosque Farms. She is a member of the Society of Professional Journalists Rio Grande chapter’s board of directors.